Glacier Park Officials Reject Blasting Plan

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Glacier National Park officials, citing concerns about wildlife habitat, have rejected a BNSF Railway proposal to use explosives for preventing avalanches that could send snow onto railroad tracks.

Instead, the railroad should spend millions of dollars to build more snowsheds — canopies over segments of track — to keep snow from blocking the route along the park’s southern edge, according to an environmental document released Thursday by park officials, in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Transportation.

A few years ago, BNSF asked Glacier for a permit to use explosives for avalanche control in a canyon where snow blocked the tracks for 29 hours. A series of avalanches occurred, derailing an empty freight train and just missing cleanup crews. One of the slides hit a truck on U.S. 2 below the railroad.

Besides creating a hazard, snow on the tracks delayed commerce, said the railroad, which obtained an emergency, three-day permit for explosives in 2006 and used a helicopter in setting off 10 charges. The effect was minimal, and the operation was canceled.

Last year, BNSF withdrew its proposal for a permit, saying the National Park Service had overstated how much shelling would be needed for avalanche work. The railroad said it would submit a new proposal, but did not. The Park Service decided to complete work on an environmental impact statement anyway.

Apparently distinguishing between the 10 charges in 2006 and long-term use, the document says that “explosive use for avalanche reduction would be an unprecedented action in (Glacier), and the park has many serious concerns about impacts to park values, including winter wildlife habitat, threatened and endangered species, natural sound and recommended wilderness.”

The impact statement also said some of the cost of extending snowsheds and building new ones would be offset by losses BNSF faces if avalanches continue to disrupt rail transportation. The railroad would be entirely responsible for the cost and had raised expense as a concern when snowsheds were discussed previously.

The Park Service said the proposed snowsheds would span a fraction of the 72 miles of BNSF track along the park’s southern boundary.

Will Hammerquist of the National Parks Conservation Association called the decision “a victory for people who love the park and a victory for park resources.”

Railroad spokesman Gus Melonas said Thursday that company officials were reviewing the document and declined further comment.

The environmental impact statement, which will be listed in the Federal Register, will be submitted to National Park Service Regional Director Mike Snyder in Colorado. For the document to be implemented, Snyder must sign a record of decision.